OJ by the sea.

O.J. by the Sea

O.J. by the Sea

Notes from different corners of the world.
Oct. 18 1996 3:30 AM

O.J. by the Sea

VIEW ALL ENTRIES

       Today the courtroom begins to shrink. It's the first day of phase three of jury selection, and, unlike phase two, half of the remaining jury pool--over 50 candidates--are seated in the courtroom simultaneously, watching the 12 in the jury box respond individually to questions from the attorneys. That means that potential jurors can witness the fate of their peers, and can learn what answers pass muster and what answers earn you an early exit back to real life. It also means that 50 seats that were available to the press and public are now reserved for the people with the red-and-white "juror" tags on their shirts and jackets.
       So it is first come, first served for the dozen or so remaining seats. I knew this, and I tried like hell to be one of the early birds. Is it the gods of comedy who made my 2-year-old dog forget his toilet training this very morning, and who also set the kitchen smoke alarm to ultra-sensitive, resulting in a visit from the Fire Department's paramedics truck? I know I'll laugh about it some day.
       I'm actually not that late. I get No. 17 on the sign-up sheet that some journalist with a talent for organization (or a distaste for bloodshed in the fraternity) has instituted. When Jerianne Haizlitt, the petite, auburn-haired head of communications for Superior Court, arrives to supervise the limited access, the--to borrow a Johnnie Cochranism--whining and moaning begin.
       People who didn't know about the setup, people who have to file immediately--they plead their cases. The pool reporters, the folks you see standing in front of the cameras telling everyone else what transpired in court, are seated automatically. The courtroom artist is a different matter. He did not sign up in time, and Jerianne tosses the question back to the assembled press: Who is willing to surrender his or her seat for the sake of the only person legally permitted to transmit visual information from the courtroom? The answer is suitably ironic; the gods of comedy are writing today's episode. The courtroom artist is given a seat by a network radio correspondent, one of the few representatives of a medium that will never use those sketches.
       For this final phase of jury selection, the defendant reappears, limping visibly, limping through the corridor to the courtroom within inches of Fred Goldman. There is something insane about our system, and something majestic as well. These two men, joined by emotions worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy, meeting in such close proximity in such an uneventful way, in the midst of this overly eventful proceeding--it may not be true civilization, but it's as close as we're going to get.
       I'm here by choice, so I choose to wait, even though the morning session starts with me sitting on the hard wooden bench outside the courtroom, outside the metal-detector perimeter, schmoozing with the other media latecomers about whether SaturdayNightLive was ever funny. "Schmoozing"--a Yiddish word creeping into English, it means amiable chatting, with an overlay of ulterior motive in the schmoozer--begins to appear as a major theme of this spectacle seen close-up. For, two hours later, when some jurors are excused, opening up some seats and affording greater access to the courtroom, I find myself seated just in front of a TV reporter who has gone bowling with Kato Kaelin--because he could--and found him, contrary to expectations, to be a charming ... schmoozer. What would we expect? Could a guy parlay house-guesthood into a profession if he weren't fun to have around?
       Then, proving once again the truth of the cliché that you should be careful what you wish for lest you get it, that courtroom seat for which I'd waited becomes an opportunity to watch nothing. Well, almost nothing. Within minutes of convening the morning's post-break session, Judge Fujisaki reveals that there is a "personal matter" involving one of the potential jurors, and the case retreats to chambers, where it lives for more than an hour, up through the lunch break. Lacking proceedings to watch, O.J. leans across the bar separating the parties and lawyers from observers, and strikes up a conversation with reporters from a cable TV channel and a wire service. A roomful of potential jurors has nothing else to watch but this tableau of smiling, cheerful ... schmoozing. The media crowd seated behind the lucky baskers in the O.J. charm wonders, in whispers, how this can be allowed to continue. After about 15 minutes, one of the bailiffs emerges from the judge's chamber, notices what's going on, and admonishes the lawyers not to chat up the press in view of the jurors. It's a sidelong way of telling O.J. to zip it, and zip it he does.
       But Kato wouldn't be Kato, and O.J. wouldn't be O.J., if they hadn't inherited the schmoozing gene. And Bob Dole wouldn't be Bob Dole if he had.

Harry Shearer is a writer, actor, and director who has met both Kato Kaelin and Heidi Fleiss.